2016 Democrat Presidential Candidates Address the Syrian Refugee Crisis

A Syrian family disembarks from the Greek government chartered Eleftherios Venizelos ferry at the port of Piraeus on September 9, 2015. Thousands of refugees arrived in Piraeus by goverment chartered ferry from the overcrowded Greek islands, especially the island of Lesbos. EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled major plans Wednesday …
Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

The large Republican presidential field has taken a variety of positions on the topic of how many Syrian refugees should be allowed to resettle in the United States. The much smaller Democrat field also appears to be divided on the issue.

Agree with him or not, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley deserves recognition as one of the few candidates from either party to offer an actual number. O’Malley said over the weekend that the U.S. should submit to United Nations demands and take 65,000 refugees by the end of next year.

“Americans have a long, proud tradition of providing comfort to the weak and weary,” O’Malley wrote in a USA Today op-ed.

It is in our national DNA, inscribed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  We are a nation of immigrants and refugees, and we cannot forget what it means to struggle and toil and yearn for a better life beyond the next horizon. The world is in the midst of a nearly unprecedented global refugee crisis, with more refugees than at any time since World War II. How will we respond? Will we listen to our better angels and the voices of moral clarity whispering to us, or will we slam doors and build walls?

“The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees intends to resettle 130,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years, and the United States historically has accepted half its resettlement cases. We should not hesitate to do so once again,” O’Malley argued.

He invoked international examples to press Americans to accept more Syrian immigrants, in fact urging Americans to step forward and demand more homes for Syrians in the United States. “We are a big enough country in size and treasure and heart to do more. And if our political leadership fails us, I believe the American people, like individuals around the world, can and will step forward to do the right thing,” O’Malley wrote.

When the government of Icelandproposed to accept only 50 Syrian refugees, the people of Iceland took matters into their own hands. They quickly organized online and 10,000 people volunteered to take in refugees. Now the government is reconsidering its quota. If Germany – a country with one-fourth our population – can accept 800,000 refugees this year, certainly we can do more.

O’Malley even brought up Barack Obama’s surge of unaccompanied alien minors as a positive example of how the gates should be flung wide for Syrian refugees: “As the former governor of Maryland, I know firsthand that we can do more. When tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence arrived at our southern border last year, Maryland took in more children per capita than any other state. We did it by working together: we cared for more than 5,000 children by convening Maryland’s faith, community, business and government leaders. We made a huge difference in these children’s lives and showed that Americans – if given the opportunity – are eager to step up and live their values.”

Former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee told the UK Guardian that the United States “unfortunately bears a great deal of responsibility for the refugee crisis because of our invasion of Iraq and the spread of chaos in the region as a result,” but was unwilling to say if he thought more Syrians should be resettled in the U.S.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has been reticent to address the question directly – the Guardian lists his campaign as one of several that “did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the specific question of whether the U.S. should accept more refugees.”

And then, of course, there is Hillary Clinton, whose statements on the topic are characteristically evasive. Clinton wants to be simultaneously viewed as a powerful foreign policy expert, and a helpless bystander to the failed policies of the Administration she served.

“I advocated for, as I say, a more robust policy,” she told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Friday. “But sitting here, I can’t say that that would have, on its own, made a difference, because this had to be an international effort.”

Clinton is very big on the “international effort” talking point. “I think the entire world has to come together,” she said. “It should not be just one or two countries, or not just Europe and the United States. We should do our part, as should the Europeans.”

But in the next breath, she said “we have got to come to grips with the fact that this is not going away, and the millions of people who are fleeing need safe places to be. But the conflict needs to be brought under control.”

So… was that more “robust policy” she claims to have quietly but firmly supported during the Obama years the answer or not? You could distill twenty different positions from Clinton’s remarks, and she’ll probably take them all before this is done, depending on how much criticism of Obama foreign policy she thinks she can get away with.

At the moment, she still seems to think the answer is to hold meetings. “There should be an emergency global gathering where the U.N. literally tries to get commitments,” she said at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday, as reported by Politico. “I obviously want the United States to do our part. As Pope Francis has reminded us, this is an international problem that demands an international response. The United States must help lead that response.”

Still no specifics on how many Syrians she thinks should end up living in the United States as part of that “response.”

It’s not encouraging that Clinton cited Iranian nuclear sanctions as a positive example of her leadership in the NBC interview. “We have to do what I did with the Iranian sanctions. I had to get the Russians on board. I had to get the Chinese on board. It was not easy,” she recalled. “But that’s the kind of intensive diplomacy that is going to be required in order to stop the flow of refugees and to try to bring some peace and security back to the region.”

Those vaunted international Iran sanctions were just swept aside in a deal that gives Iran everything it could dream of, with nothing in return. If that metaphor holds for the Syrian crisis, President Hillary would get the Russians and Chinese on board with a deal that ends with Bashar Assad executing every Syrian who displeases him, after he promises to inspect his own dungeons for cleanliness, and receives a hundred billion dollars in sanctions relief.


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